Searching for Black Confederates: History teacher battles one of the American Civil War's most stubborn myths

For decades, a pervasive myth that black men fought for the South in the American Civil War has plagued historians and distorted collective memory of that event. Historian Kevin Levin says that false narrative fuels the racial divide today.
The most iconic photograph coming out of this history is of Silas Chandler, an enslaved man (right) who is seated next to his master Andrew Chandler. (Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

When Kevin Levin first started writing about the myth of black Confederate soldiers on his blog Civil War Memory, he says he was amazed at the reactions the subject provoked in readers.

The mythical "black Confederates" - black men who supposedly fought for the South, for the Confederate cause to uphold slavery - has only been a part of American Civil War "memory" for the last several decades.

With hundreds of comments on each post he wrote about this myth, Levin said it was a topic that many people felt strongly about.

"It wasn't just that they had a position one way or the other. It was just that they were so incredibly engaged and defensive about their respective positions," he told Tapestry's Mary Hynes. 

The myth is now the focus of Levin's new book Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth. 

The book looks at how the myth of the black Confederate evolved and the impact it has had on popular understandings of that war throughout history and even today.

Levin said that whether you believe the myth or eschew it, the idea of the black Confederate is tied to contemporary attitudes about race and racism.

Here is part of his conversation on Tapestry.

Mary Hynes: So to believe in the black Confederate, in black men fighting for the South in the Civil War, you'd have to believe in a lot of fairly preposterous things. What happens to slavery in this version of history?

Kevin Levin: A couple of things. Overall, what happens with slavery is that it gets pushed aside, as irrelevant to what the Confederacy was supposedly fighting for. So it's a way of distancing the Confederacy itself from the tough issue of slavery. 

If it's not pushed aside, it's quite often distorted in some way. And so quite often, you'll hear people talk about the loyalty of enslaved people both before the Civil War and right through to the very end. And that's another way to "get right" with the issue of slavery. It's a way of, for many people, allowing themselves to continue to revere their own Confederate ancestors. 

MH: There's a picture that gets passed around. It's a photo of a black man who is wearing a Confederate uniform, and you've done a lot of work on this. Tell me about Silas.

KL: Silas Chandler. The famous photograph which is now in the hands of the Library of Congress, adorns the cover of the book. It is the most iconic photograph coming out of this history and this debate about black Confederates. He's not only just wearing a uniform, he's sitting side by side with his master Andrew Chandler. They're both wearing uniforms and they both appear to be heavily armed. And for many people, this is sufficient evidence that black men fought as soldiers. What could be more convincing than a black man in a uniform, armed to the teeth? And you know, from my perspective, having looked into the history of the photograph and the relationship between Silas and Andrew, it's a wonderful example of the master-slave relationship. 

Silas was enslaved to the Chandler family from birth and, like many other Confederate officers from the slave-holding class, he accompanied his master as a body servant. He was in the war from the very beginning until the very end. The photograph itself was likely taken at the very beginning of the war, the weapons that they are shown with are likely studio props, and it's likely that Andrew walked into the studio, a young 17 or 18 year-old-boy, bright-eyed about his about his future in the Confederate military, wanting to show off his bravery, his honour to his family, and decides to have this photograph taken. And it's an unusual photograph because it's the only one where the enslaved man is sitting side by side rather than in some kind of subservient position.

Levin's book 'Searching for Black Confederates' looks at how the myth has evolved, and the impact it has had on the racial divide today.

MH: Silas Chandler had a family, he has descendants. How has this fictional history of her own relatives affected Myra, a descendant you've been in touch with?

KL: She had done a great deal of research in state and local archives and contacted me as a result of my own research into the subject. She shared her work with me and it helped immensely. This is someone who lives in Texas and had to travel to West Point, Mississippi every so often to take a confederate Cross of honour out from her ancestor's grave that was placed there by Confederate heritage folks who wanted to honour him as a soldier. So she's been committed to this. 

She understands the history, she's crystal clear on it, but her family for quite a long time had been split down the middle over this issue. In fact, a number of them had been convinced by Confederate heritage organisations that he did fight as a soldier. And that's not so difficult to understand. For much of the 20th century, the story of enslaved people had been ignored entirely or mythologized and here you have an organisation that wants to honour your ancestor as a brave soldier. For me, it's easy to sort of understand why someone might be attracted to that.

MH: I'm curious about something you point to in the book, that the timing of these accounts gets very interesting. The myth is heavily promoted, it seems, during certain flash points in US history. Can you take me through some of those?

KL: I think many people are surprised that it's relatively late in the game when this happens. It's really the 1970s when the first references to black Confederate soldiers begin to appear in print, mainly through the group the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But over time since the war ended in 1865, there was always this push at different points to remember the "loyal slave." 

Of course no one forgets that thousands of body servants or what I call "camp slaves" accompanied their Confederate officers [or] owners into the war. There's always an attempt throughout the post-war period to keep them in mind, that they are part of what the Confederacy was about. So they attend Confederate veterans reunions, monument dedications, they're present in soldier reminiscences and other kinds of post war accounts.They were always present, these body servants, but it's only in the 1970s following the Civil Rights movement that a certain group decides to begin to turn these men who were always enslaved, into soldiers. And that was a dramatic shift in how at least the Confederate heritage community had been writing and thinking about the Confederacy and the history of the war more generally.

Kevin Levin has spent a decade trying to dispel the myth of the 'Black Confederate' (Kevin Levin/ submitted)

MH: This whole conversation gets even messier when you consider that there are some African Americans who believe in the black Confederate. I hadn't realised that before reading your book. 

KL: Yeah, a relatively small number. We all in our own way, whether we're aware of it or not, use the past to inform our present. We interpret the past to make sense of the present. And I think in many cases, that's what's happening here. For someone like H.K. Eggerton, who I talk about in the book, he's a former NAACP chapter president famous for marching across the South in a Confederate uniform, carrying a Confederate battle flag. He is the darling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. For him, as best I can tell, these stories of loyal black Confederates help to paper over a lot of the racial divisiveness that he sees around him and so he apparently wants to live in a world where there isn't as much of a racial divide as there apparently is. And for him these stories about black men fighting side-by-side with white comrades is comforting.

MH: Reconciliation is generally thought to be a very good thing. Tell me about reconciliation in the context of the Civil War and in the aftermath of the war.

KL: To a certain extent white Americans specifically have romanticised the war. We go to places like Gettysburg and we visit gift shops. We buy t-shirts and we buy all kinds of things that, in a sense, push aside the absolute devastation and bloodshed that was experienced by Americans for those four plus years. Roughly 750,000 Americans lost their lives during that brief period of time. And within a few decades, even the veterans themselves were meeting on the battlefield, shaking hands at veterans reunions by the early 20th century. And again, that allows the country to reunite and, on a certain level, I guess you could argue that's a good thing. But for African Americans, it was a death sentence politically and in terms of how many of them were living at that time in the postwar South. Because their memory of the war had been lost. The story of the black soldiers fighting for the United States that helped save the Union and end slavery, that narrative had been pushed away.

And the best example of this is Frederick Douglass, who by the end of his life in the 1890s, is someone who had experienced so much of the 19th century. A former slave who was pushing for black soldiers during the Civil War itself, [who] had come to live to see the end of slavery, with two sons fighting in the war itself, fighting for the Union. And by the end of his life, he is watching this narrative crumble around him and he's watching a reemerging South that remains defiant, still believing that what they were fighting for was justified. And you can imagine from his perspective, believing that perhaps everything that had been fought for was, in the end, lost.

MH: Tell me what happened in early December, you've called it a dumpster fire. This was what's gone on between the University of North Carolina and the Confederate monument that was toppled, Silent Sam.

KL: The University of North Carolina just recently settled a lawsuit with the Sons of Confederate Veterans' North Carolina division over the future of Silent Sam. Silent Sam is a Confederate soldier statue that was dedicated on campus in 1913. For years it has been controversial on campus among students and even activists beyond the campus itself. And in August of 2019 Silent Sam was pulled down, and both the statue and the base were removed [and] placed in storage. There was a big question about what would happen to the statue, and what has just recently happened is the university settled with the SCV. They are going to not only handover the statue itself to the SCV, they're also handing over $2.5 million to be used to maintain Silent Sam in in perpetuity. And so as you can imagine, this has just reignited faculty, students and activists who had thought that this issue and least was being settled in the right way.

In the last few decades, the SCV has become much more connected to white supremacist organisations, like the League of the South and others and so there's a lot of crossover in membership between these organisations. So it's not just that UNC has made a deal with a group of elderly white men who simply want to revere their Confederate ancestors, this is much darker than that, and potentially much more dangerous.

MH: Who do you think is served by this version of a history that includes black men fighting for the Confederacy?

KL: Well, I think certainly the descendants of these men - members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, organizations that have long seen that their primary mission is defending the honour of their Confederate ancestors. 

I think there is also a political component to this myth, and it tends to find a home among politically conservative Americans. And I think if you want to minimize the debate about race today, if you want to argue that the racial divide is really the work of far left radicals like Black Lives Matter, then by arguing that even during the Civil War, even in the Confederacy, black men were welcomed as equals as soldiers, then you can say, 'You see, you're inventing these problems today. You're politicizing so many of these problems today, making the problem even worse.' So history becomes a way of making a claim, or reinforcing your perspective on the present. And that can be very dangerous when you're using history for political purposes.

MH: Why is the myth of the black Confederates so hard to dispel?

KL: I think first, because the internet is where this lives. It's a wild west show on the internet. And people believe what they see on the internet. People don't approach the internet with a healthy scepticism. 

I think the other part of this is that at the root of the black Confederate myth, is the myth that slavery was irrelevant to the war itself -- that it was irrelevant, or inconsequential to the Confederacy itself. And so that is always going to be a tough nut to crack. And so it's not just about whether black men served as soldiers in the Confederacy or not. It sort of points us to the very question of what the war was about [and] why the Confederacy existed at all. And so I think because we are so divided over those fundamental issues, I think we will remain divided over issues like the black Confederate.